By Mark Ellis
Muslim riots in Niger sparked by the Charlie Hebdo magazine debacle led to 10 deaths and more than 70 churches burned in and around the capital, and it left many Christians wondering about this once tolerant country, where all religions got along well before this tragic incident.
“They are in shock,” says Amie Cotton, director of pubic relations at Christian Aid Mission. “Nothing like this has happened in Niger. They always lived peaceably before.”
Violence over the weekend of Jan. 16-18 left 46 Protestant churches and 15 Catholic churches burned in the capital city of Niamey along with Christian medical clinics and an orphanage. The 98 percent Muslim population has lived in relative peace with its tiny (0.3 percent) Christian minority for decades.
There was a chilling postscript, however, to the violence. “Houses of Christians were marked,” Cotton notes. “Christians are concerned there may be further attacks.”
“We received several phone calls from local Christians and missionaries that confirmed that their houses were marked. Please continue to pray for the very insecure situation in Niger.”
Some believe the rise of violent Islamist groups across Africa, such as Boko Haram in neighboring Nigeria, have fed the growth of radical elements in Niger. During the riots, Muslims in Niger were shouting, “Kill the infidels, kill the Christians,” mimicking radical Islamists elsewhere.
“The Charlie Hebdo saga has become an opportunity for attacking Christians in Niger, an Islam-dominated country which has been praised for its secular government and relative tolerance towards Christians,” according to a report by Open Doors. “Over the past few years the country has seen growing radicalization.”
While protests raged across countries with high-profile Islamic extremist elements, like Somalia and Pakistan, the violent response in Niger was surprising. Niger was unranked on Open Doors’ 2015 World Watch List of the worst persecutors of Christians.
The violence began on Friday (Jan. 16) in Zinder, where several church buildings and Christians’ homes were razed. The rampage continued, destroying church buildings in Gouré, Tanout, Magaria, Maradi, Birnin Gaouré, and hitting Niamey the next day.
In addition to Christian targets, angry Muslim youths also looted shops, attacked police stations, bars and hotels, as well as businesses that were either owned by non-Muslims or linked with France.
Among the dead from the attacks in Niger were at least three Christians trapped inside church buildings.
One leader of a ministry assisted by Christian Aid Mission condemned the violence. “Of what crime are the churches and Christians of Niger guilty?” he asked. “We condemn these disturbances and deplore the loss of human life and the high number of injuries among the innocent citizens they attack.”
More than 170 people were injured, officials said, and the scale of the rioting suggested other factors contributing to the chaos besides a magazine cover. Rioters also expressed anger that Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou participated in a unity march in Paris against the attack on Charlie Hebdo.
Analysts also pointed to the violence beginning in Zinder, where there is a strong opposition to the ruling party, suggesting political rivals were stoking the fires following the president’s presence in Paris.
The hand of Islamic extremist groups was suspected, and officials were said to be investigating whether Boko Haram of neighboring Nigeria was involved. Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau is from Niger, and Boko Haram flags appeared amid the chaos, according to Christian Aid Mission.
While the majority of Niger’s Muslims may not have approved of Charlie Hebdo’s depiction of Muhammad – including President Issoufou, who emphasized that he was marching against terrorism and not supporting the magazine – most did not seem sympathetic to the scale and degree of the riots. Many moderate Muslims in Niger helped Christians who were fleeing in terror.
“I look forward to the fact that next month I have the opportunity to meet each and every Muslim who aided the safety of God’s people in Niger and to thank them,” said one leader of a ministry assisted by Christian Aid Mission.
He likened those who attacked to those who crucified Jesus, saying Christians must forgive them because they knew not what they were doing. “Just as Jesus was wrongly condemned and tortured, so were the Christians in Niger, but I wholeheartedly believe that they [the assailants], too, ‘know not what they have done,’” he said. “So as Jesus made the bequest to the Father, I too plan to forgive these people.”